I was delighted to return to the role of skills, apprenticeships and higher education minister in October. As many of you will know, whether in or out of government, I’ve been passionate about skills and technical education for many years.
My interest began when I was still a parliamentary candidate, after meeting some young people who were desperate to do an apprenticeship but didn’t know how to get started. I decided that clearing the path to this route would be my mission if I entered parliament.
In fact, my first ever speech in the House of Commons was about apprenticeships. I urged teachers to encourage students to consider them, rather than seeing university as their only option to a great career.
To be reappointed skills minister has given me the chance to champion the ladder of opportunity from within government. I am committed to ensuring that, regardless of background, everyone has access to excellent skills education, in order to gain sustainable, fulfilling work.
It helps that we have a prime minister who really values skills education. There can be no clearer demonstration of this than his appointment of Gillian Keegan as the first education secretary to hold a degree-level apprenticeship. The prime minister has called education “the closest thing we have to a silver bullet” for changing life chances and named it as one of his government’s key priorities. Our ambitious skills agenda is the backbone to this, providing £3.8bn over this parliament for T Levels, reinvigorated apprenticeships and Higher Technical Qualifications.
The prime minister’s recent announcement that all students in England should study some form of maths until the age of 18 will better equip them for the jobs of the future. I find it alarming that sometimes we give the appearance of being rather relaxed about being “bad at maths”. We should reconsider this approach to numeracy. Around eight million adults in England have maths skills lower than those expected of a nine-year-old. The problem is particularly acute for disadvantaged pupils, where 60 per cent do not have basic maths skills at age 16.
This is problematic because maths and financial literacy is, of course, essential for carrying out basic tasks in daily life, including managing personal finances and maintaining a basic level of competence at work in many professions. The Prime Minister wants to make this positive difference to people’s lives so they can confidently pursue life’s opportunities and a successful career in an industry of their choice.
And it’s not just about maths. Our skills agenda is transforming the education landscape, taking its cue from employers in order to fill the skills gaps in many industries. We’re doing this through investment in resources, skills qualifications, infrastructure, careers guidance and improved employee engagement.
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Apprenticeships are an outstanding way for people to climb the ladder of opportunity, especially those who need the security of an income to develop the skills they need to get ahead. This can be especially powerful for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. In fact, the Education Secretary often refers to her apprenticeship as her social mobility ticket. That is why we’ll have invested £2.7bn in them by 2024–25,working with businesses of all sizes to build the skilled workforce needed to boost the economy.
I often say “degree apprenticeships” are my two favourite words in the English language. They combine the best of vocational and academic education, allowing young people to earn while they learn and remain free of student loans debt. Under this government, the popularity of degree-level apprenticeships has soared, with over 148,000 starts since their introduction in 2014-15.
We also introduced T Levels in 2020, the new gold standard in technical qualifications. They offer a non-academic route for young people to access specialised training, which sets them up for future study and a successful working life. These top-quality qualifications are an important element of our skills reforms, and their rigour gives them parity with the A-level route. The T Level Transition Programme supports those students who benefit from the additional study time and preparation before progressing to T Level learning.
We have invested £300m to develop a network of prestigious Institutes of Technology across the country. These, alongside the higher technical qualifications (HTQs) they help provide, are supporting more people to secure exciting and rewarding careers. In turn, they also make a valuable contribution to their communities, employers and economy. To date, 106 qualifications have been approved as HTQs across digital, construction, and health and science routes for teaching from September 2022, and there are over 70 institutions able to deliver them.
It is never too late for someone to change career or retrain. That’s why we continue to offer free training to all adults who need support with maths or English – or new skills for key sectors like digital, green technologies and healthcare. We invested over £150m in the last year to expand our flexible Skills Bootcamps and free courses for job training schemes, which thousands of adults have already taken advantage of.
Further education and skills are often described as the “Cinderella service” of post-16 learning. It is a phrase I absolutely detest. I always remind people that, at the end of the fairy tale, Cinderella became a member of the royal family.
Our ambitious skills agenda does just that, and it is transforming lives. We are building the prestige of skills education – and ensuring lifelong learning by enabling people to train, re-train and upskill throughout working life in a way that suits them. This extends the ladder of opportunity to everyone, supporting them to achieve rewarding employment, regardless of their background or their circumstances.
There is still lots of work to do. But my hope is to never again meet young people who feel they have no viable routes to getting a good job and a great career